‘If you do it well, philosophy can really influence other fields’ – an interview with Erik Rietveld

by Gisela Govaart, June 2013

Dr. Erik Rietveld is a researcher at the University of Amsterdam (AMC and Department of Philosophy) and a Founding Partner of design & research studio Rietveld Landscape. In 2010 he was one of the curators for the Dutch submission to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and in 2013 he received an NWO VIDI-grant for the project ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’.

Erik Rietveld, photo by Alva Noë
Erik Rietveld, photo by Alva Noë

“I started doing philosophy after travelling and studying in Brazil for one year. I was originally trained as an economist and had worked for five years for a multinational company, in their Mergers & Acquisitions department. I did like it; it was a very good start of getting to know the world outside university. You get a lot of responsibility: it was typically millions of dollars that we spent on buying a company. But after a few years I realized I wanted to do something different in the long run. The result of the work was quite one-dimensional: in the end, everything is measured in share price of the company. It is all about money, and I am not that interested in money. After that year in Brazil, I came back to Amsterdam, and I was trying to find out what I would really like to do. In that year, I realized, I had had the freedom of doing everything I wanted, and I was always reading philosophy. I decided that I should start doing that seriously.”

“I call myself a philosopher of embodied cognitive science. One of the people launching embodied cognition, before it was a research field, was Hubert Dreyfus, who wrote the book ‘What computers can’t do’ and later ‘What computers still can’t do’. He was a Spinoza professor here in Amsterdam, and that is how I got introduced to him, and via him to many other philosophers in the field.”

Shared feeling

“It is not a huge field, which has the advantage that you meet almost all the people who publish in it at conferences. There are interesting disagreements, but there is also the shared feeling that it is really important what we are doing and it is getting increasingly recognised in more traditional laboratories within cognitive science. For example, several people at the CSCA, the Cognitive Science Centre Amsterdam, are really interested in what is going on in this field. That is what I like about being based in Amsterdam, that there is the opportunity to engage in collaboration with these people, who are really open-minded.”

“I think the field of philosophy is a conservative field, not so much my colleagues here, but mainstream philosophy. I think that in general the top philosophy journals are very much embedded in a kind of philosophy that is not always very open to interaction with other disciplines or open to being informed by empirical research. It is very much internally focussed: it focuses on scholastic debates within philosophy itself, rather than being interested in the world out there.”

Higher cognition

“The title of my VIDI project is ‘The Landscape of Affordances: Situating the Embodied Mind’. What I try to do is to develop a philosophical framework for embodied cognitive science. Normally, it is thought that embodied cognition has sensible things to say about every day activities, such as sitting in a chair, grasping a glass, riding your bike etc. I have analysed these behaviours as forms of skilled action. One of the conclusions was that for skilled action, responsiveness to affordances, which are possibilities for action offered by the environment, is crucial. This means that affordances support skillful action. What I will do in this new project is to show how higher cognition is often also a form of skillful action. I want to explore to what extent we can understand skillful action of for example architects or surgeons at work as responsiveness to affordances.”

“I argue that the notion of affordances is much richer than people normally think it is: it does not only offer possibilities for every day actions. For example, one of the skills we have is to put a glass on the beer coaster, which would be an every day action, but another skill we have is to judge that this is red. This means that a beer coaster offers the possibility to judge correctly that is it red, and that it can do so, depends on the social and cultural practice that we have. The affordances in our human ecological niche are nothing else than just relations between aspects of the environment, and the abilities that are available in our form of life.”

Different experiments

“Simple as it sounds, I think this rich notion of affordances is really fundamental, because what I try to do is to make responsiveness to affordances the main phenomenon for the field of embodied cognition to study. That means also that cognitive neuroscientists should be interested primarily in how it is possible that we are always responsive to the relevant affordances in a particular situation, and not to all the other thousands of possible affordances. The role of the brain and the body is to contribute to selecting the relevant affordances in the particular situation. From that perspective you would design very different experiments than people are designing currently in cognitive science. Currently everything is divided up in memory, perception, emotion, cognition, action etc. My idea changes this, in the way that the basic phenomenon now is responsiveness to relevant affordances in a particular situation.”

“I want to see how far we can go with that. I think I made a good argument in recent collaborative work with my colleague Julian Kiverstein that judging correctly that something is red can be explained in responsiveness to affordances, but there will probably be limits as well to this rich notion. I want to explore these limits: I want to see what we can and what we cannot understand in these terms. I will do that by looking at episodes of architects at work and see what parts of what is traditionally called higher cognition we can understand in terms of responsiveness to affordances and what not. After years of collaborating with architects I have become convinced that many forms of higher cognition can be understood along these same lines as I found in my work on everyday skilful action.”

A VIDI with four projects

“The VIDI has four projects. The first one is the development of the affordance-based philosophical framework, the second project is an investigation of expertise in architecture and getting ethnographic descriptions of architects at work. The third project investigates the phenomenology of patients with deep brain stimulation. If deep brain stimulation is switched on, and it works, the whole phenomenology changes all at ones; it is not just perception or memory that changes. Everything changes at once. We will relate that to what phenomenologists call ‘being in the world’. We try to make this concrete using the notion of the field of affordances. And then the fourth project is to think of the whole system brain-body-environment as a dynamical system. For this, we use ideas from dynamical systems theory to shed light on these systems. I think it makes most sense to think of this system as the brain-body-landscape of affordances system. It is the body embedded in the landscape of affordances, and the brain embedded in the body. They are all coupled: the brain is coupled to the rest of the body, and the rest of the body is coupled to the landscape of affordances. I think that dynamical systems theory has interesting tools to better understand that.”

Venice Biennale

“The Venice Architecture Biennale is basically the most important event in the world of architecture. Various countries have a pavilion in Venice, and the countries make a submission for every Biennale. My brother, architect Ronald Rietveld, and I were invited by the ministry of OCW, (Education, Culture and Science) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute to be the curators of the Dutch submission. If you are curator you can either invite someone else to create the submission, or you can do it yourself. We decided to design it ourselves, but with an excellent team of other people: a visual artist, an industrial designer, a graphic designer and a project manager.”

“We composed the team after we proposed a topic: the vacancy of ten thousand government buildings in the Netherlands, and the use of these buildings for temporary activities in what the government calls the ‘top sectors’ for a vital knowledge economy. The main statement we made was ‘use vacant buildings for innovation’. But the Biennale is an event were you have to give a memorable experience to the people, so we chose to make an installation. It had a great impact, and a lot of spinoff. Jurgen Bey, the industrial designer, became the director of the Sandberg institute, which is the Master Program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. He invited us to develop our own Master course on the topic: the potential of vacant buildings. I see vacant buildings as landscapes of resources, of affordances, being locked up behind a door. There is a lot of potential, so we would like to unlock it for our society, particularly when it is government-owned and particularly in times of crisis. Even more when you know that it are interesting buildings, cultural heritage, with unique affordances, like an airport with a 3 kilometre runway, or fortresses, bunkers, schools, hospitals etc.”

The installation at the Venice Biennale
The installation at the Venice Biennale

“It is nice working with my brother, we get along very well, we have a lot of fun when we work. I think the reason that it works well, is that we share a lot of background. Obviously, we grew up together, but we went on some holidays together as well, we travelled a lot together. My brother works, thanks to his years of training and experience in architecture, very intuitively. My role is even more intuitive, because I do not have any formal training in architecture, so I just respond to what I see. My brother selects what makes sense and what does not make sense. Or actually: he ignores what does not make sense. That is an important difference between philosophers and architects: philosophers are always targeting what does not make sense in someone’s argumentation, whereas architects just ignore what does not work.  I am more of the positive approach: I like things that can make a change in the real world. If you do it well, philosophy can really influence other fields.”

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